He played with Harry James and Sinatra and now was traveling 76 miles each way, four nights a week, with stage-four cancer just to make $100 a gig to support himself and his 92-year-old mother. After five operations, he’s cancer-free, and we kept up his rent, car payments and put food on the table. —Wendy Oxenhorn, executive director of the New York–based Jazz Foundation of America
I cannot even imagine the world without jazz and the blues, and I cannot imagine turning our backs on the very people who gave their lives, their life experiences, and the music to us all these years, especially now when they need us most. —Quincy Jones
In 1918, the New Orleans Times-Picayune declared jazz “an atrocity in polite society,” and fulminated that “we should make it a point of civic honor to suppress it. Its musical value is nil, and its possibilities of harm are great.”
But jazz went on to become an international language, surviving even in dictatorships that banned it. Nazi Germany condemned the music as a disgusting “Negro-Jewish” mongrelization. And in the years jazz was still prohibited in the U.S.S.R., a Moscow tenor saxophonist wrote me that he had translated my John Coltrane liner notes and covertly distributed them to other musicians in unlawful samizdats.
But as the years went on, and more sidemen and leaders grew ill or fell out of fashion, few of the music’s admirers here or around the world were aware of the barren last years of these musicians. Jazz musicians do not have pensions, and very few have medical plans or other resources. Pianist Wynton Kelly, for example—a vital sideman for Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie—died penniless. I was at the first recording session of pianist Phineas Newborn, whose mastery of the instrument was astonishing. As jazz musicians say, he told a story. His ended in a pauper’s grave in Memphis.
At last, 17 years ago, in New York, a group of musicians and jazz enthusiasts for whom the music had become essential to their lives formed the Jazz Foundation of America. Its mission is to regenerate the lives of abandoned players—paying the rents before they’re evicted, taking care of their medical needs, and providing emergency living expenses.
Because of Dizzy Gillespie—who had such a strong will to live and more generosity of spirit than anyone I’ve ever known—the Jazz Foundation has been able to send musicians to New Jersey’s Englewood Hospital and Medical Center and its Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund.
In 1993, Dizzy, dying of cancer at Englewood Hospital, said to his oncologist and hematologist, Dr. Frank Forte, a jazz guitarist by night, “Can you find a way to get the medical care I’m getting for musicians who can’t afford it?” Since then, at no cost, jazz makers have received a wide range of treatment there—from cancer care to hip replacements.
A very active Jazz Foundation board—including musicians and extraordinarily generous donors—has continuously expanded the foundation’s reach to musicians in this area and elsewhere. (I’m an inactive member of the board. All I do is write about what it does.)
The indispensable driving force at the Jazz Foundation is its executive director, Wendy Oxenhorn. I’ve known a number of people who gave their all to keep others alive—death penalty lawyers and human rights workers, for example—but I’ve never come across anyone who is so continually on call as Wendy, at all hours, even when she herself is not well.
Says Wendy: “The average guy who calls in has not been to a doctor for 20 years. One hadn’t been for 50 years.” And she tells musicians and everyone else that “these are in no way handouts. It’s a privilege to be of use to people who spent a lifetime giving us all they had.”
In January, the world’s largest organization of what I call the family of jazz—the musicians, broadcasters, critics, producers, historians, et al, of the International Association for Jazz Education—will hold its 34th Annual International Conference in New York. On January 10, the IAJE, for the first time in its history, will present a special award recognizing the incalculable efforts of the Jazz Foundation in support of the New Orleans and Gulf Coast musician communities after the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
Among those receiving the award is the Jazz Foundation’s president, Jarrett Lilien, head of E*Trade Financial, for providing the funds to house hundreds of musicians and their families. He has done much more for the foundation, and is working on creating the Players’ Residence for jazz musicians in New York—with low rents, a place for jamming, dental and medical facilities, recording studios, and a phone contact for gigs. It’ll be the first of its kind in the world. More of that and other Jazz Foundation projects in a future column.
Also getting the award is Agnes Varis of Agvar Chemicals Inc., who, along with her many other wide-ranging donations to the foundation, made it possible for Wendy and the staff to provide jobs for hundreds of musicians displaced by Katrina in eight states.
The third recipient will be Wendy Oxenhorn. I hope the gala dinner will include a musical performance by Wendy. As she has demonstrated at the Jazz Foundation’s annual benefit concerts at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Wendy plays a penetratingly passionate blues harmonica.
Soon after Katrina struck, Wendy—speeding to Lafayette, two and a half hours from devastated New Orleans—had already gotten new instruments for stranded musicians and helped persuade local clubs in the area to provide extra gigs for the players. She also got money for them to work in local schools and shelters.
No request for help is beyond her determination. “We had one musician stuck in a shelter with his five-month-old baby,” she recalls. “The Red Cross had run out of baby formula, and our social worker, Alisa, managed to get Similac (a maker of baby formula) to donate a case overnight.”
If you want to be part of this essential branch of the jazz family, you can donate to the Jazz Foundation of America, 322 West 48th Street, 6th floor, New York, NY 10036; 212-245-3999, ext. 21; or email@example.com. The life from this music encircles the globe.